Falls and Marks

I fell during my run today. One stride I was rushing forward, chattering to St. Matt about an amazing book I’d read yesterday and admiring the foliage; then I was launched into sideways Superman dive, grating over leaves, roots and twigs. I’m sure it was very graceful.

I popped up, shook my limbs, shrugged at a suddenly pale St. Matt, and resumed my run and the conversation: And it was so consuming; I couldn’t turn pages–

He interrupted to point out that I’d given him yet another heart attack and to repeat: “Don’t look at your leg. No. Don’t. I said DON’T look at it.”

I have a weensy issue with blood. Okay, it’s a major issue. Bruises, however, inspire macabre fascination. My new hobby is watching my legs turn purple.

But it isn’t painful; it isn’t even unexpected. I fall A LOT, especially on a trail run – and trail runs in the autumn are their own brand of treachery: tree roots and holes stay hidden under a layer of leaves, just waiting for their opportunity to send me sprawling.

Yet, despite four (is it five?) sprained ankles, countless scrapes, and bruises from indigo to lilac, there’s no keeping me off the trails.

A straight out, straight back road run? One where I’ll know each step that takes me away and brings me back to the start? Boring.

I prefer runs just like how I prefer my books: full of the unexpected. They’ll have a start, they’ll have a conclusion, but the moments in between should be an adventure.

I want my heroine to dare to turn left at the fallen log, just to see if it is a real path. I want her to start running up a hill whose peak is hidden by trees – not knowing if she’ll have the stamina to reach the top, or even how far away it is. I want split second decisions: stay by the stream or turn toward the covered bridge. And challenges: fording puddles, striding through mud, sliding up a rain-slick hill. She should stop short to avoid spider webs that appear inches from her face, pause to pat the occasional dog sharing her path, and be willing to get her feet wet and her legs muddy. Scratches from that pricker-bush incident should be worn with pride.

It’s these books that stay with me; the ones where I can’t predict what the hero or heroine will do next. The ones whose characters take risks, do the unexpected, but never forget to notice the beauty along the way. They fall, get back up, continue their adventures.

These books fill my head with questions and what-if’s. They linger in my mind and are book-bullied into others’ hands. These are the books that leave marks on me long after The End.

But unlike trail runs… the marks don’t require band-aids.

A Matter of Perspective

I volunteered at an Autism Awareness 5K this morning. I probably could’ve run it, but – since the tan lines from last summer’s ankle brace still haven’t faded –I’m babying my ankle this year.

St.Matt and my SIL were running, they had maps of the course in their race bag, along with sneaker chips, safety pins, number and Powerbars.

I had a bright yellow VOLUNTEER shirt that clashed with the khaki capris I’d tugged on at 6:45.

“I’ve got just the spot in mind for you,” said one of the directors, a very nice man I’d never met before.

“Not at the water station?” That’s where I’d been told I’d be situated during volunteer check-in.

“Nope, I need you somewhere else.” He smiled at me in a confident way that made me wonder if rumors of my cheering-prowess had made their way all the way from Boston to Buckingham, PA. Or perhaps he was just wowed by my post-massive-coffee confidence and energy.

Either way, I ended up mid-hill at an intersection were runners would pass me three times. As runners headed down the hill towards me, I pointed them down a side street. They would run a loop and come back towards me and I would point them behind me, down to the bottom of the hill, where they would run around a cone. Finally they’d run up the whole hill and disappear around the corner they’d come from. This was not a little hill.

For 30 minutes before the race I was alone on it. The 24 oz coffee I’d so quickly finished suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea. I had to go and I was bored. I practiced my hand signals – 1st the cul de sac on the left, then down behind me, then up the hill – this was interesting for about 24 seconds.

I tweeted a bit, played some music on my phone, and bopped around in the middle of the street to entertain myself – looking up when I heard giggles and finding two kiddos watching me from a neighboring yard. Apparently I was entertaining them too.

About 20 minutes prior to the race, a runner on a warm-up loop approached me: “So when I reach the first time, how far into the race am I? How far is that loop? When I pass you coming up the hill, how far to the finish?”

I realized I didn’t know. I’d gotten in the truck with the director, been deposited in the middle of the course and I knew nothing but my own immediate intersection.

It’s all a matter of perspective and until I flagged down a bike cop doing a pre-race lap of the route, I didn’t have any. The cop rattled off the stats quickly: “They’re about two miles in when they reach you. It’s about point-4 miles down that loop,” he pointed left. “Then point-4 for them to come back out, and about two-tenths to the bottom of the hill, from there it’s about a half mile back up the hill and to the finish line.”

I nodded and absorbed his facts: 2 miles, 4/10ths, 2/10ths, one-half. “Thanks. And is the rest of the course flat?”

He grinned as he positioned his feet back on his pedals, “Nope, this course was designed by someone with a sense of humor. But you’re smack dab in the middle of the biggest hill.”


While I didn’t move throughout the race course — I pranced around my intersection and cheered, pointed, encouraged, clapped, and pointed some more — I needed the officer’s knowledge to give me perspective. It helped me to know where the runners had been, where I was sending them, and where they were going after they passed by. I was asked for these facts by more than a few ready-to-be-done runners, especially when I pointed them up the hill.


Writing’s like this too. It’s not enough to concentrate on a single scene. No matter how critical a plot juncture, the writer needs perspective. I can’t – for a moment, paragraph or page – forget where the characters are coming from, or where the plot is headed. Each scene and chapter should be crafted with a purpose: to propel the characters towards the end. When I lose sight of this – lose my perspective – I may craft scenes that are fun or witty or tell interesting background, but it’d be like asking the runners to do the hokey pokey around the traffic cone at the bottom of the hill. It interrupts the stride and slows down the pacing. More than that, it’s distracting.

I don’t always draft in order – sometimes I drop myself off at a plot intersection where things are happening from many different angles – but as long as I keep my attention focused on where characters and plot lines have been and where they’re headed to, I can keep cheering, pointing, encouraging clapping, and pointing some more.

Luckily, while writing I don’t need to wear day-glo yellow, I can usually dance without inspiring giggles, and I have bathroom access.

The Boston Marathon by the numbers (with some pictures interspersed for the visual learners)

26.2 miles = length of a marathon (42.195 kilometers)

113 = Yesterday – April 20th, 2009 – was the 113th Boston Marathon.

25,000 + = the number of marathoners in yesterday’s race.

500,000 = approximate number of cheerers along the course route.

8 = cheerers in my group

389 = sweaty high-fives exchanged with runners (estimated)

5 = cough drops consumed post-cheering to soothe my throat

13477 = my father’s marathon number

3:45 = the time he needed to qualify for next year’s race

3:36:25 = his finish time

8:16 = his pace per mile

2:37 = his Boston Marathon P.R. (in 1984)

2:08:42 = Deriba Merga’s winning time yesterday

8 seconds = the difference between first & third place in the women’s race.

$806,000 = total prize money awarded yesterday

$1,000,000 = how I felt watching my dad! (pride-splosion!)

363 = days until the 114th Boston Marathon. Start training. NOW!

Marathon Monday

Today is Marathon Monday in Boston, the first day of Massachusetts’s spring break, and also Patriots’ Day. It’s Marathon Monday that drew me home this weekend – away from my non-vacationing classroom in Pennsylvania. My father’s running his 14th – or possibly 15th or 16th, he hasn’t kept track – Boston Marathon and if he runs, I cheer.

My first memory is of cheering in the crowds – only really able to see a smear of legs at they passed my toddler eyes and my mother’s too-close, over-smiley face as she bent down and asked excitedly, “Tiff, did you see him? Did you see Daddy?”

I’m sure I lied and nodded. Then she plopped me in a stroller, grabbed my older sister’s hand and pushed me through the crowd to our next cheering vantage point.

I loved it.

I love it. The energy of the runners. The names block-printed in sharpie down arms & thighs. The runners in costumes. The runners on teams. The serious runners. The runners who worry they can’t make it up the next hill. Or the one after that. Or the next one. The course is not flat.

I’m a great cheerer too! If you’ve got your name somewhere on your body, I will yell it out. I will clap, smile and tell you that you are the fastest, bestest, enduring-est runner, and I’ll ask you when you’re going to start sweating, because you’re just making it look too easy. Or I’ll tell you how proud I am of how far you’ve made it, and I just know you can keep going.

The runners LOVE me. My mom and St. Matt tend to slowly edge away, which suits me fine because then I have more room to wave my arms while cheering.

Now that I’m taller than kneecaps, I love being able to look into that sea of runners and pick out my father. There’s a my-heart-might-pop-with-pride feeling that comes from spotting him and knowing all the adverse weather, business travel, and injuries he’s overcome in order to prepare for 26.2 miles on one of the most grueling courses.

Last year he finished in 3:33: approximately 8-minute-miles: 26.2 of them. His best time was 2:37: approximately sub 6-minute miles: still 26.2 of them. Want to join me in a pride-splosion?

I have a post-marathon tendency to think, perhaps, next year, I could join him out there. Maybe I should start training for a marathon. Look how great this is! There are older people, heavier people, runners with so many braces they’re practically bionic. I could do that.

And then I get injured.

So, I’m putting this in writing. Do. Not. Let. Me. Start. Training. For. A. Marathon.

5K’s? Sure. Easy. 5-miler? That’s okay. Any distance longer than that and I might as well start asking for the physical therapy referral now.

I repeat: Do. Not. Let. Me. Start. Training. For. A. Marathon.

And start brewing the post-race tea & honey now. My father will need it for lungs that sawed 26.2 miles. I’ll need its voice-restorative powers because post-race, post-pride-splosion hugs, I’m back in the car and making the reverse of Friday’s journey so I can be back in the classroom tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow after school, no matter how inspired I feel, no matter how beautiful the weather is, or how loudly the trails by my house call my name: Do. Not. Let. Me. Start. Training. For. A. Marathon.

St. Matt may need to hide my running shoes.

Running & Writing: Learning to sprint

When I participated in high school track, I was a member of the distance crew. I could never be a sprinter because it took me too long to get warmed up. By the time I was ready to turn on the speed, the sprint was over.

In my writing life I function much the same way. I prefer to sit down for an endurance writing session – get lost in the world I’ve created and only re-emerge when my stomach is audibly growling, my muscles are cramping, and my head is utterly emptied. (Oddly enough, this is the same feeling I’d get after a long run!)

But my life doesn’t work like that. There are rare and wonderful days when I can lock myself away and write, but they’re the exception, not the norm. What I struggle with is how to get the most out of the stolen minutes that I smuggle and stack together to construct my writing time.

I’ve tried these tips:

* End your writing session with a half-finished sentence so you can pick up there tomorrow

* Start by reading and revising the previous two pages, then move forward

* End by creating a bulleted list of where you’d like to go next

None work all that well for me – I’m incapable of leaving a sentence half finished, I never want to go back just two pages, and once I start bulleting, I just want to write the scene. How can I teach myself to sprint when I want to run (er, write) a marathon?

How do you make the most of shorter writing sessions?